Stopping the Islamic State Might Be Obama’s Chance to Salvage His Middle East Policy

Stopping the Islamic State Might Be Obama’s Chance to Salvage His Middle East Policy

The social media-produced execution of journalist Jim Foley released on Aug. 19 focuses attention on whether President Obama will stay the course in Iraq or take necessary actions to defeat the Islamic State (IS).

Now, in the context of Foley’s execution, will the president stick to his strategy of defensive containment or adopt a mini-surge, sending additional military advisors to Iraq in a rollback strategy to defeat IS? The latter, however, makes sense only if the president authorizes, or America’s partners conduct, raids into Syria, because IS forces may flee there as they are attacked in Iraq. And unless Special Operations spotters were deployed to identify IS targets in Syria as spotters do in Iraq, widening the battlefield space would not be as effective.

According to a report in the Washington Post on Friday, the administration has prepared options for legal authority to use force against IS across both Iraq and Syria. They include temporary justification under the War Powers Resolution, constitutional authority for emergency action to protect U.S. citizens, and consulting with the Congress for open-ended authorization to fight IS. But the same article states that the president has not requested to see contingency plans for broader airstrikes in Syria. If the administration goes the open-ended consultation route with Capitol Hill and the president ignores the contingency plans, it might be a signal that he is not serious about defeating IS.

But if the president does adopt a strategy to include Syria, the American people can be persuaded with an Obama-like 2008 address — such a midcourse correction is optimally-timed to save his presidency from further ignominy. As Daniel Pipes wrote, however, "I do not customarily offer advice to a president whose election I opposed," I also hesitate to make suggestions that might save the Obama presidency. But the national interest in preventing IS from using Iraq and Syria as launching pads to execute attacks overrides political concerns.

According to Real Clear Politics, the president’s overall popularity is quite low: Between July 29 and Aug. 20,  42 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved of the overall job he was doing across nine different polls. The numbers were worse for his handling of foreign affairs, which, between July 29 and Aug. 12, only 35.8 percent of those polled approved versus 53.8 percent who disapproved over six polls.

A poll by Pew-USA TODAY taken Aug. 14 to 17 — prior to release of the execution video — indicates support (54 percent approve, 31 percent disapprove) of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, but concern about getting too involved (51 percent worry about mission creep, 32 percent worry Washington will not do enough to stop the Islamists). Responsibility to act in Iraq increased between July and August, suggesting the assassination will result in greater support for airstrikes and responsibility to act in Iraq.

With Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi seeking to form a more inclusive government in Baghdad, Iraqi politics are propitious for Obama to switch from containment to rollback. Abadi may also be able to cut deals with Sunnis in Falluja and Mosul, where IS made gains. When I interviewed Sunnis from these towns in late 2008, they worried whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would continue to support tribes that took part in the American-led Awakening, which helped defeat al Qaeda of Iraq, in the event of a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Abadi might also successfully negotiate an agreement with Kurds in Erbil about oil revenue sharing. When I was in Erbil during 2008, I found many Kurds disenchanted with Baghdad. To assist the Kurds, Washington could introduce additional military advisors, intelligence operatives, conduct more airstrikes, and deploy special operations forces, such as Delta Force and SEALs.

Without a General David Petraeus on the ground, it would be tragic if Abadi turned to a Petraeus nemesis, General Qassem Suleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force to back up Iraqi Security Forces even more than he does now. There are reports of Soleimani being in Baghdad during June; now this once shadow commander is front and center doing in Iraq what he supposedly did in Syria against Islamists seeking to overthrow Assad. Although contrary reports are coming out of Iran that Tehran would join the fight against IS in return for lifting all sanctions in the nuclear talks, Washington should minimize Iran’s involvement in Iraq.

To save what is left of the Obama presidency, now is a time for him to have a carpe diem moment — rolling back IS gains, expanding the battlefield to Syria, and reaching out to the Iranian opposition to send a signal that eventually regime change from within might be on the table.